COLUMBUS, Ohio (CN) – An Ohio judge gave Columbus Crew fans hope Tuesday that they can keep the soccer team in their city by issuing a 90-day hold on legal proceedings against the team’s owners, opening the door for investors interested in buying the team to submit offers under seal.
Columbus Crew SC is one of Major League Soccer’s founding teams, forming in 1994 and playing its inaugural season two years later.
But last year, the club’s owners, Anthony Precourt and his company Precourt Sports Ventures, roiled fans by announcing they planned to move the franchise to Austin, Texas, employing a familiar strategy used by other U.S. sports teams who have used that leverage to push for new publicly funded facilities.
Precourt had asked the city to support a new downtown stadium, arguing that the club’s growth has hit a ceiling at its current home at Mapfre Stadium, which is leased from the state and is about four miles north of downtown.
When Columbus refused, the club’s owners reaffirmed their intention to move south, with the MLS’s blessing. The league later acknowledged that a secret “Austin clause” existed in an operator-investor agreement that it signed with Precourt in 2013.
The announcement energized a Save The Crew movement that has become more vocal, even as relocation to Texas seemed certain to happen.
In February, Columbus and Ohio fought back against the notion that the move was inevitable by suing under a 1996 statute called the Art Modell Law.
The law was enacted after Modell, former owner of the National Football League’s Cleveland Browns, moved the team to Baltimore. Under the law, Ohio sports teams supported by public money are required to ask for permission before relocating, or give six months’ notice and allow local investors an opportunity to buy the team.
On Tuesday, Franklin County Common Pleas Court Judge Jeffrey Brown issued a 90-day tolling period in the case. The judge will later tackle claims arising from when the six-month notice was given and the owners’ motion to throw out the lawsuit based on their allegation that the Modell law is unconstitutional.
Judge Brown also granted the Crew’s owners’ motion to issue a stay on discovery, but wants the parties to meet in the coming weeks to determine what valuation materials will be made available to potential suitors.
“Negotiations between the parties for settlement of this case, with the assistance of this court, shall continue during the 90-day tolling period ordered herein,” Brown wrote in a 19-page order. “Any bona fide purchaser(s)′ offer shall be submitted directly to this court under seal, and such offers will then be provided to counsel as received.”
Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said he welcomed the decision and that it means the court can take a closer look at credible offers to keep the team in Columbus.
“This ruling is a win for Crew fans and for soccer fans around the country who agree that Major League Soccer’s original franchise should remain in Columbus,” DeWine said in a prepared statement.
Neither Columbus City Attorney Zach Klein nor Precourt Sports Ventures’ attorney Dan Cvetanovich immediately responded Wednesday to requests for comment.